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Creating furry friends with human emotions in ‘Cress Watercress’

In Gregory Maguire’s new fantasy, a young rabbit deals with her father’s disappearance and an unpleasant new home.

Gregory Maguire's new fantasy, “Cress Watercress,” is the story of a girl rabbit. Maguire modeled the book's characters on those in classics such as “The Wind in the Willows” and “Charlotte’s Web.” (Candlewick/The Washington Post collage)
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Talking rabbits, squirrels and a skunk scamper and scheme in Gregory Maguire’s new fantasy, “Cress Watercress.”

Through these animal characters, “I can explore universal emotions,” Maguire said by phone from his home in Concord, Massachusetts.

The main character, a girl rabbit named Cress, must move with her mother and baby brother after the sudden disappearance of her father. The family rents the tiny basement in an old tree called the “Broken Arms.” Cress wonders if it will ever feel like home.

Have you felt like that after relocating to a new neighborhood or school? Did you miss old friends and familiar places? How did you deal with the loneliness?

Cress yearns for her previous home. The Broken Arms is noisy and crowded with busybodies, including an elderly theatrical mouse named Manfred Crabgrass. A hungry fox and a snake lurk nearby, which means she can’t play outside. Her only possible friends are the rowdy boy squirrels at the top of the tree.

Then a flimsy raft and a fast-moving stream swirl her off on a strange adventure.

Reimagining ‘Oz’

Maguire had a great time developing these characters, he said. While other writers might draw inspiration from their pets or farm animals, that wasn’t an option for him.

“I’m allergic to everything,” he said with a laugh, so that meant no in-person time with real creatures. Instead he modeled his new book on classics such as “The Wind in the Willows” and “Charlotte’s Web.”

“Those animals had such distinct personalities,” he said.

Maguire is the author of many popular books for children and adults. “Wicked,” one of the longest-running musicals on Broadway, was adapted from his novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.” This book is the first of four in his Wicked Years series for teens and adults.

That book (and the musical) reimagine the villainous witch from the children’s classic “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum, and from the beloved 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz.” Maguire’s story helps us better understand the witch. Her decisions are more complex than a clear choice between good and evil.

Young playwright

Like all his tales, “Cress Watercress” sparkles with lively dialogue and surprising moments. Maguire credits this to his childhood in Albany, New York. He grew up with six siblings and limited access to TV.

“We learned to entertain ourselves,” said Maguire, who loved writing plays to be performed by his brothers and sisters and neighborhood kids.

“I’ve been trying to listen to the way characters talk and how a story swerves and turns since then,” he said.

One unexpected turn in Cress’s story occurred when a friend named Natasha asked Maguire to put her in the book. The plot then shifted in a new and more interesting direction, he said.

Like many of us, Maguire had to spend much time at home during the coronavirus pandemic. During these past two years, he wrote not just “Cress Watercress,” but two additional books in a new trilogy about the Wicked characters.

“It’s set a few generations later” than the Wicked Years series, said Maguire.

He’s now writing the third and final book and eager to see the unexpected turns it might take.